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Lost & Found: Whitney Otto on Isadora Duncan

If spring has put dance in your step or an outrageously long scarf around your neck, this L&F
goes out to you. Here’s Whitney Otto on Isadora Duncan’s memoir, My Life.

The first time I read My Life, Isadora Duncan’s posthumously published memoir, I was nineteen years old and as impressionable as one can be at nineteen.  I already had a Hollywood notion of Isadora: that would be Vanessa Redgrave in all her mid-1960s Blowup beauty, cavorting around Europe and Russia in what looked like a sheer tablecloth.  But I had grown up in the sixties, so Isadora seemed less like an iconoclast—you know, an Independent Woman who lived for Art, believed in free love, shunned marriage, had children anyway, was politically committed—and more like one of my babysitters.

I already knew that I didn’t want to be her as much as I wanted to hang out with her.  I was a classic good girl harboring the usual dream of rebellion, so someone like Isadora Duncan, who lived a life of such endless impulse, was riveting.  Here was a girl with no social brakes, who spoke in lofty and flowery terms about Art (always capitalized) with an undeniable sincerity and willingness to live her beliefs.  She was audacious and absolute, except when she wasn’t, and that was just so Isadora.

The barest facts of her life are as follows: she was born in San Francisco in 1878 in a poverty-stricken, bohemian family, one of four children whose father had abandoned them.  Her mother taught piano and the five of them moved with alarming regularity, since securing the rent was nearly impossible.  (There was a lot of leaving whatever belongings they accumulated behind.)  Isadora began teaching and dancing at age eleven, and ended up leading the family to Chicago, New York, London, Germany, Hungary, Paris—well, you get the picture—with the ultimate destination being Greece, where the clan Duncan was bent on reviving all things Ancient Greece: tunics, temples, and belief in the panoply of gods.

Along the way she revolutionized dance, found fame, performed all over Europe, Russia (pre- and post-revolution), and South America, dragging her blue curtains, her oriental rugs, and her mother (and sometimes her siblings) with her.  North America was a little puritanical for her brand of Art (Isadora called herself a “Puritan pagan” or a “pagan Puritan”—she was undecided.

She had two adored children by two different men (one arty and petulant, the other wealthy and petulant), founded her famous school of Isadorables, and eventually ended up marrying because she couldn’t travel the United States freely with her lover, a Russian poet seventeen years her junior.  (See the above reference to North America.)  Her life was perpetually marred by tragedy.  The two children died in a freakish car accident (understandably, she never recovered from the emotional blow.  As she says at one point, people often mistook the fact that she continued living at all with the idea that she was “over it,” when she was permanently wrecked).  She then became pregnant again by a lover she refers to as Michel Angelo, and that child died immediately after being born.  Her lovers, all identified by their nicknames—Romeo, Lohengrin, the Archangel—were untrue and unworthy; the Archangel actually left her for one of her younger pupils.  Her Russian husband committed suicide early in their marriage.  Money woes came and went, but mostly came.  And she died in 1927, in Nice, in her own freakish car accident.  As she says early in her story, all the important events of her life took place by the sea.

She is no writer, as she is the first to admit.  Her sentences can run a little funny but it really doesn’t mar the perfection of the piece.  Near the end of her book she writes: “I am trying to write down the truth, but the truth runs away and hides from me.  How find the truth?  If I were a writer, and had written of my life twenty novels or so, it would be nearer the truth.”  (As a novelist I feel a certain sympathy with this.)  There is no autobiography I love more than My Life for its sheer exuberance, joie de vivre, candor, and heartbreak.  And, yes, for its truth.

Whitney Otto is the author of How to Make an American Quilt, Now You See Her, The Passion Dream Book, and A Collection of Beauties: At the Height of Their Popularity. Her latest book, Eight Girls Taking Pictures, will be released by Scribner this fall.

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